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Covid-19: ‘Why homegrown school feeding’s timely’

SAMSON BENJAMIN and PAUL OKAH in this report examine the mixed reactions trailing the federal government’s decision to continue with the school feeding programme amidst lockdown.

 In compliance with a directive by President Muhammadu Buhari during his March 29 nationwide broadcast, before placing the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Lagos and Ogun states under lockdown as part of measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, recently flagged off the Modified Home Grown School Feeding Programme in Abuja.

President Buhari had directed the ministry to liaise with state governments and develop strategies for the continuation of the school feeding programme in spite of the nationwide closure of schools to prevent the spread of the virus among students and members of staff.

Speaking at the flag-off in Kuje area council of the FCT, the minister said the programme will impact 3,131,971 households across the country.

 “The ministry is working hard with our partners both at national and international levels to mitigate the challenge posed by hunger especially during this trying period,” she said.

She also noted that the take home rations will target parents and guardians of children in primary 1 to 3 in public schools. She said six area councils in the FCT; Kuje, Kwali, Abaji, AMAC, Bwari and Gwagwalada, will benefit from the programme after which Lagos and Ogun states will follow.

Similarly, the minister while speaking at the inaugural meeting of United Nations Covid-19 basket fund meeting in Abuja last week said, “The homegrown School Feeding Programme (HGSFP) will provide Take Home Food Rations to 3.1 million households of school children from poor homes at designated centres, using existing structure across the states and LGAs.”

Scope

According to the senior adviser to the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development on strategic communication, Halima Oyelade, the programme will capture all the states including states where it was not fully operational.

She said, “The programme will run in all 36 states and the FCT. Following requests from Kwara and Bayelsa where the programme was not fully operational before the lockdown, the two states will now benefit from the modified programme once certain requirements are fulfilled.

“The ministry in consultation and collaboration with state governments identified the distribution of Take Home Rations (THR) to the households of the children on the programme as a feasible method of achieving this directive after exploring several options.

“In order to trace the children who are at home due to the lockdown, the Ministry requested states to carry out mapping exercises in order to trace the households of the children using all available data sources including the School Based Management Boards, community focal persons, cooks on the programme and most importantly existing school registers in the LGAs where the schools are domiciled, which is the primary source of data of beneficiaries used by the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme. As a second level of verification, the door to door voucher distribution process will be used. This is currently ongoing in Abuja and Lagos.”

 CSO urges support

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the national coordinator of a civil society organisation (CSO) with interest in the programme, Education Partnership Centre and Women Consortium of Nigeria, Dr. Nkechi Obi, said her organisation resolved to help monitor distribution of food to households during the lockdown because it believes in the programme.

According to her, it is important to put in place accountability structures and measures that will ensure that the full value of this significant investment is realised.

She said, “The initiative is laudable and should be supported by all stakeholders. It is with this background that I call on the federal government, under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, and all the governors, their cabinet members and the entire government architecture to re-commit themselves to the fight against corruption even as we battle the coronavirus pandemic.

 “The role of citizens in the effective management of state affairs cannot be overemphasised; therefore, the current global pandemic calls for the involvement of all stakeholders in shaping and finding solutions.

 “In view of this, we have resolved to support governments’ effort through the various structures/mechanisms being put in place by the respective state governments to ensure successful implementation of the homegrown school feeding programme.

“We will Work with the different community-based groups and individuals whom we have been working with over the years, to complement the efforts of government by monitoring the proposed federal government distribution of food packages to the households who have children in public schools and are current beneficiaries of the HGSFP in their various communities.”

Transparency

Also, in order to ensure transparency and accountability, the ministry stated that the list of all participating vendors in the programme will be submitted to anti-graft agencies.

Oyelade said they had invited anti-graft agencies, CSOs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help with the monitoring of events.

“To ensure that the programme is not mismanaged, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management & Social Development has requested other government agencies including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Department of State Services (DSS), Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Code of Conduct Bureau and  a host of NGOs and CSOs to help monitor. The Ministry’s hotlines will be made available to the public to provide accurate information and for grievance redress,” she said.

Kwara gov’s position

The Kwara state governor, Abdulrazaq Abdulrahman, in a remark, said the state is joining the national homegrown school feeding programme to tackle school age malnutrition, boost school enrolment, and strengthen local economy through wealth re-distribution.

The governor said the statistics of 33 per cent of our children who are stunted and seven per cent that are wasted in the state until May 2019 which is the highest in the North-central region is scary and must be reversed to give every child a head start in life.

AbdulRazaq said this while declaring open a two-day Stakeholders Workshop on National Home Grown School Feeding Programme in Ilorin.

He said,” “I am very passionate about school feeding for our children. This is because the socio-economic cost of not urgently acting against malnutrition and dwindling school enrolment far outweighs whatever financial commitments we will be making to the programme.

“As at May, last year, 33 per cent of our children were stunted while another seven per cent were adjudged as wasted. This is scary. It is something that must be addressed immediately.”

The governor also said, “This meeting has been called to get all the stakeholders on the same page ahead of implementation of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme in Kwara state. I must also thank the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management Sadiya Umar Farouq for her commitment towards the inclusion of the state in the NHGSFP.”

Expert’s assurances

Speaking on the initiative, the chairman, Lagos state Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), Wahab Alawiye-King, said the state government has concluded plans to make the programme a means of restoring public confidence in governance.

He assured Lagosians that its implementation would be based on a tripod of openness, transparency and accountability.

Alawiye-King gave the assurance on Sunday when he met some stakeholders, including Education Secretaries in the various Local Government Education Authorities across the state and School-based Management Committees and others who have specific roles to play in the chain of implementing the programme in Lagos.

 He said although previous experiences of systemic failures in implementation of similar projects in the past had made members of the public to lose confidence in the sincerity of the programme, he promised that the current homegrown school feeding initiative would be implemented in an objective manner to further gain public confidence.

He said, “we are not unmindful of the fact that politicisation, lack of transparency and accountability sometimes associated with government programmes have made this home grown school feeding Programme attracted so much criticism, this further makes us realise that we are under close scrutiny by members of the public and we must not disappoint them.”

He expressed the belief that with the support of all the relevant stakeholders, the programme would not fail and that no one would be left in any doubt when the implementation finally begins.

Criticisms

However, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has described the programme as a “huge scam” and a scheme by the All Progressives Congress (APC) leaders and some officials in the government to siphon targeted N13.5 billion public funds to finance their lifestyle.

The party stated that the use of innocent school children as cover to steal and funnel not less than N679 million daily to private purses is sacrilegious, wicked and completely unpardonable.

According to a statement issued by the party’s national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, while it is clear that the APC-led administration school feeding programme had always been a scam, the claims to feed school children even when schools are closed is a colossal racketeering taken too far.

“While the PDP has nothing against any transparent effort to provide succour to Nigerians, particularly our children, at this critical time, our party rejects the on-going fraud in which school children, who are in their respective homes.”

The party stated further that the minister had not provided details of how she intended to reach the 9.7 million school children, “who are now in their homes in different locations since the closure of schools,” even as officials continue to muddle up required documentations in a bid to cover their tracks.

According to the opposition party, “Nigerians are urged to note how the minister contradicted herself in claiming that the food would be shared door-to door and in the same breath, averred that vouchers would be allocated at specific collection times to avoid overcrowding.”

Ministry reacts

However, reacting to the criticisms trailing the programme, Oyelade said adequate measures have been put in place to ensure that only accredited parent or guardian gets the food.

 “Contrary to ongoing speculation, the Take Home Rations would not be given to children, but to the parents/guardians or caregivers of children in primary 1 to 3 in public schools participating in the programme. A total of 3,131,971 households are targeted for this intervention.

“For beneficiaries to be able to access the Take Home Rations QR coded vouchers will be distributed door to door. They will be serialised as well as date and time stamped. Once presented at a distribution centre, identified heads of households would be able to collect the Take Home Rations.

“Each Take Home Ration is valued at N4, 200 and is made up of 5kg bag of rice, 5kg bag of beans, 500ml vegetable oil, 750ml palm oil, 500mg salt, 15pcs of eggs, 140gm tomato paste. These rations have been reviewed by nutrition experts,” she said.

 BMO’s take

In its reaction, the Buhari Media Organisation (BMO) has commended the ministry for being creative by designing a Take Home Ration and voucher scheme through which it will use to sustain the Home Grown School Feeding programme even while the schools are closed due to the lockdown against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The BMO, in a statement signed by its chairman, Niyi Akinsiju, and secretary, Cassidy Madueke, while also responding to the PDP’s claim that the programme was a ‘huge scam’ noted that the party, which had become quick to speak, and slow to research failed to grasp the well-conceived programme that was being administered by the ministry.

The group said further that the programme had been modified due to the Covid-19 pandemic which had schools locked, to have food rations collected by the families of the beneficiary students.

 The statement read in part, “It is line with the desire of President Muhammadu Buhari to cushion the effect of the partial lockdown on the school children by ensuring that they receive nutritious food regardless of the closure of their schools.

“Thus the Buhari administration has come up with a package called the Take Home Rations which would target the parents, guardians, or caregivers of primary 1 to 3 pupils currently enrolled on the programme.

 “These beneficiaries are being issued with time stamped vouchers which they would use to pick up their Take Home Rations containing rice, beans, vegetable and palm oil, salt, eggs and tomato paste. State governments across the country would be at the forefront of implementation of the distribution of the packaged food rations in line with the register of pupils in their possession.”

 The group stated that the criticism of the programme by the PDP was marked by their failure to understand the programme, and their thinking that Nigeria still operates like it did during their 16 years in power.

“The PDP failed to appreciate that Nigeria has moved on from the era – during which they held sway of the affairs of the country – where every programme of government was an opportunity for its members to steal and misappropriate funds. They are still engraved in that mentality which they used to run the affairs of the country. They were a party that oversaw the impoverishment of the country, not because the country was poor, but because they were mismanaging and misappropriating the country’s wealth.

“Under a President Buhari administration, Nigerians can be assured that no programme of government would be turned into a bazaar; there will be zero-fraud – not especially one that targets poor Nigerian families during a pandemic.”

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